album review: Jordan Montero
DAMN. captures a concept that plays an ultimate vice in all of our lives: the intrinsic conflict we face at certain decision, trying to keep our values and beliefs intact. Kendrick Lamar, in DAMN., swoons over every line to ensure that his inner struggle is applicable to every individual. The album’s personality is blunt, introspective, and elegant. Lamar cleverly teases his catalysts over an array of fluctuating, modern sounds to deliver an exemplary entry into 2017’s legacy.
On Friday, April 14th, we were able to resume our fandom and were greeted with a gospel-like, synth-y, chamber of voices, provided by Bêkon, that would prove to be a driving force for the record’s development of its core themes. Immediately, Kendrick reminds us that he is a highly introspective individual, contemplating the reason for his faults through the eloquent voices. “BLOOD.”, the western-like, powerfully moving overture, provides a creative first glimpse into the album’s self-contemplative nature; all through the simple telling of a tale and a FOX News sample. Following the introduction, Kendrick performs on the album a defibrillation, filling it with energy. “DNA.” is the harsh, bar-infested framing of genetics as the reason we shine and darken, containing perhaps cleaner raps than we heard in To Pimp A Butterfly. The beat, produced by Mike Will Made It, has in it fast, deep bass, catchy ad-libs, and a beat switch half way through keeping the song extremely exciting, a tactic employed in numerous tracks on the album.
The flimsy, cool-as-all-hell third track, “YAH.”, provides even more insight into Kendrick’s good-hearted spirit. The hook will stay in your head long after you take out your earbuds, and the escalating flutter that happens there makes the same thing happen in my stomach. In “ELEMENT.” Kendrick channels his inner Drake in cadence and subject. Despite compromising rhyme quality and substance, Kendrick’s amazing touch and a beat to keep up makes for great pop music; a recurring pursuit in the album’s sound. The following track is in great juxtaposition with “ELEMENT.”, “FEEL.” is extremely introspective and polished with Kendrick’s great grasp on rhythm and cadence. With a beat slightly reminiscent to Kanye’s “30 Hours”, Kendrick Lamar observes both within and beyond himself to offer justification for his feelings of lament. And in the same line as “ELEMENT.”, “LOYALTY.” is another solid pop entry in the album; bearing a beat sounding as if the soul beats from the early 2000’s were fast-forwarded in development to today. On the seventh track, “PRIDE.”, after the tasteful choir introduction, Kendrick blames pride for the numerous shortcomings in all of us, hypothesizing that in a world without pride, he would be a better, more secure man. In this track Lamar also utilizes fluctuating filters on his voice to provide that extra bit of originality that, in essence, elevates his catalogue to the realm of high art.
Over the next four tracks after “PRIDE.”, Kendrick splits his pursuits into two. Over that span, we find “HUMBLE.” and “LOVE.”. These two tracks put a slight halt in the development in Kendrick’s themes to generate mass appeal. From the hard-hitting piano strikes in “HUMBLE.” to the pop sounds of Zacari in “LOVE.”, it’s music that anyone can put on while turning their mind off. Thrown in between those songs, though, are pivotal parts in Kendrick’s emotional dossier. “LUST.” and “XXX.” expand on Kendrick’s suspicions for his flaws; citing both lust and a short tolerance for violence as suspects, respectively. “LUST.”’s realistic substance and clever verse structure are it’s strengths– joining are the tasteful use of a RAT BOY sample, “Vibrate”-ish drums (long live Andre 3000), and a blissfully disorienting conclusion produced to fully express Kendrick’s feelings on this subject. In “XXX.”, we come across yet another catalyst for Kendrick’s struggles. Lamar finds himself choosing between peace and the defending of loved ones; to his disgust, he chooses the latter. The second half of the song also contains a culturally-dense final verse that shows that Kendrick’s criticism is just as heavy on America.
To round out the album we have three tracks alternating in fashion. The twelfth song, “FEAR.” is the high-reaching grace of the record. Like “LUST.”, “FEAR.”’s verse structures are reminiscent of the great Lupe’s Food & Liquor, in other words: clever, subtle brilliance. It’s also in this track that we may be hearing Kendrick at his most sincere; it’s a beautifully produced trek through the fears that have haunted the artist throughout his life. Closing with an intriguing reading of selected verses from the bible, “FEAR.” is followed by “GOD.”. With another hip-pop endeavor, Kendrick examines his successes and pleads the listener to be sympathetic towards his faults. The closer, “DUCKWORTH.” is expertly-constructed sonic entourage. Opening again with the great chamber choir, the song adventures from old-school soul samples, to a great wall of harmonic voices, to a soothing, snappy beat, and back. Meanwhile, Kendrick is showing off his great storytelling chops until the song concludes by bringing the album full circle, a repetition of the opening line.
Within the context of his career, anything short of outstanding for “DAMN.” would have been a let down. The record isn’t the grandiose piece of art we were half suspecting and half demanding, but it’s still outstanding– especially compared to his contemporaries. The mix of favorable pop music (to an extent which few modern rappers can reach) and original, tasteful hip-hop sounds demands attention. It dedicates half of itself to trendier topics and the other half to serious substance, namely religious allusions, insightful cultural commentary, and the story of a struggle. The sounds are excellent, the rapping is exquisite, and the product is steps ahead of his contemporaries (barring a short list of names), but, all things considered, it doesn’t stack up to the instant classics; both his own and not. 9.25/10.